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Alicia Bayles

Prof. Card


Images of Evil

            In the article Orcs, Wraiths, Wights: Tolkien’s Images of Evil; Shippey talks about the origin of evil.  What makes something evil? He says, “Wickedness is always…the pursuit of some good in the wrong way.”  This is precisely how the characters become bad or evil in the first place.  I do not remember the story of Sauron or how he became evil, but with the characters we do know of in Lord of the Rings, they started with intent to do good.  The nine kings wanted to protect their kingdoms, Saruman wanted to understand what had to be done in order to overcome Sauron.  They made conscious choices to probe into the secrets and the darkness.  There are others whom I do not feel necessarily had a choice, the Uruk-hai created by Saruman to take over Middle Earth.  Gollum had more choice in the matter, he sees the ring and it has an overpowering effect on him.  So much so that he begins to be overcome by its influence, and this influence in a sense causes the stronger part of him, Gollum, to take control and the good, Sméagol, to be ruled over.

            Shippey also makes an interesting point when he analyzes the discussion between Shagrat and Gorbag when they find Frodo at Cirith Ungol he says, “What the episode with Shagrat and Gorbag reveals is that orcs are moral beings, with an underlying morality much the same as ours.”  However, if that is true, it seems that an underlying morality has no effect at all on actual behavior.  How, then is an essentially correct theory of good and evil corrupted?  If one starts from a sound moral basis, how can things go so disastrously wrong?  It should require no demonstration to show that this is one of the vital questions raised with particular force during the twentieth century, in which the most civilized people have often committed the worst atrocities.  Tolkien deserves credit for noting the problem, and refusing to turn his back on it, as so many of his canonical literary contemporaries did.  Shippey also mentions that Tolkien “Insists in several places that evil has no great power.  It ‘mocks’ and does not make.’”  

One critic, a Fritz Leiber, believed Tolkien’s villains to be “merely sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards.”  The image Tolkien seems to be portraying in Lord of the Rings is not that of monsters that jump out at you, it is more the feeling of ‘real’ evil, evil as viewed by Christians.  Tolkien’s characters talk about it during the book when Pippin and Beregond hear the Black Riders and see them swoop on Faramir in “The Siege of Gondor”,

“Suddenly as they talked they were stricken dumb, frozen as it were to listening stones.  Pippin cowered down with his hands pressed to his ears; but Beregond…remained there, stiffened, staring out with starting eyes.  Pippin knew the shuddering cry that he had heard: it was the same that he had heard long ago in the Marish of the Shire, but now it was grown in power and hatred, piercing the heart with a poisonous despair.”

Shippey 191


Tolkien’s image of evil goes much deeper than being scared by monsters, it is something you feel in your bones.  To me scary monsters are things you read of in children’s books or horror stories.  Tolkien’s desire was to create something real, something people could actually understand.  The evil we see in Lord of the Rings is something everyone can relate with, the bully who got immense pleasure from the pain of others, just as the orcs do. 

            Another form of evil we come across in the course of the book is the image of the ‘Ringwraith’ the OED gives this definition of a wraith, “An apparition or specter of a dead person; a phantom or ghost.”  It also says a wraith is, “An immaterial or spectral appearance of a living being.”  Both seem to have had bearing on Tolkien, his wraiths should be dead but are clearly still alive in some form.  Shippey asks an interesting question when he gives the etymology of the word “wraith” coming from the Anglo-Saxon “to twist” or “to writhe” Shippey asks, “Could ‘wraith’ not be from the same root as writhe?”  The word wrath also derives from wraith, which parallels the old English gebolgen, “angry, swollen with rage.”   In the books wraiths are not exactly ‘immaterial’ rather they are something derived by their shape more than by their substance.  Shippey goes on to mention that, “As LOTR develops, it becomes clear that though the Ringwraiths so have physical capacities, their real weapon is psychological; they disarm their victims by striking with fear and despair.”  There are even characters that show the first signs of becoming wraiths such as Bilbo, with his perpetual anger at Gandalf, or Frodo starting to become transparent.  Wraiths do share one quality with orcs, in both we can see, if faintly, an element of goodness perverted, of evil as a mistake, something insidious.

            Shippey proceeds to sum his argument by saying, “Middle earth certainly has an appeal based on its landscape, its characters, its revival of romance; but this would be purely superficial without its animating themes of power, evil, and corruption.  Sauron and the Ringwraiths, Big Brother and the party, the pigs head and the choirboys: these have been the defining images of evil—wholly original, highly varied, oddly consistent-for a culture and a century, which had too close a contact with evil for more traditional images of it to seem any longer entirely adequate.”   





















Tom Shippey. ”Orcs, Wraiths, Wights: Tolkien’s Images of Evil.” J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances. Ed. George Clark and Daniel Timmons. Westport: Greenwood, 2000.183-196.  

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